Learning to photograph action: bicycle racing

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I’ve never been a sports photographer.

I’m not particularly interested in sports, so there has never been an incentive to learn how to photograph sports. Sure, I shot a few basketball and football games when I was in high school and college, but mostly because I was there anyway to chat with friends.

But sometimes I see sports pictures at Saint Paul Camera Club salons and think that maybe I should at least try doing some sports photography. It doesn’t have to be hockey or football or Crashed Ice. Maybe kite flying or barrel racing . . . .

Which explains why I was at the North Star Grand Prix bicycle race when it came through Saint Paul last week. The race seemed like a good place to practice shooting action – particularly to learn how to pan. Besides, it was only a few blocks from my house.

Photographing the North Star Grand Prix bicycle race

The North Star Grand Prix bicycle race turned out to be a great place to practice two key types of shots needed for sports photography: stop action and panning.

At the race, competitors do multiple laps (the women do 28 laps, the men do 40) around a course laid out on city streets. This set-up provides plenty of opportunities to practice, with time to check the (photography) results from the previous pass and make adjustments between laps. There is enough time (just enough in the men’s race) to change camera settings or move to a new location along the course without missing the next shooting opportunity.


I brought my Nikon D610 with my favorite lens, the 24-120 zoom. I also brought my cheap, but reasonably functional 70-300 zoom. I shot the women’s race entirely with the 24-120. I used both lenses to shoot the men’s race, but primarily the 70-300 because the racers were farther away after I changed locations.

I did NOT bring my Olympus OMD-EM-1. It’s supposed to be capable of photographing fast-moving subjects (although lots of people say it really isn’t), but I’ve never had much luck using it to shoot anything that moves. Nor am I as familiar with the camera’s controls as I should be.

While I do need to learn how to use the Olympus for action photography, learning to use the camera’s controls at the same time I’m trying to learn new shooting techniques seemed like too much to do at once. With the Nikon I didn’t have to think about how to operate the camera, just how to use it effectively.

Showing motion through panning

I attended the race mostly to practice panning.

Panning is a technique where you move the camera at the same speed as the subject to create a photograph where the subject is in focus and the background is blurred. The best pans have a discernable blurred streakiness to the background, like the wind blew the background away. In a bike race you would also expect to see the biker’s legs blurred from peddling the bike. This blur in the background and the subject’s movement shows motion.

I never got any pans with that wonderful streaking blur. (My shutter speed was never low enough.) However, I did get a few shots where the background and the moving bike wheels are blurry, so it wasn’t a complete fail.


As with any type of photography, light is critical. For this race, the light was complicated.

I had beautiful light for part of the women’s race. Lovely late day sunlight made shooting easy as long as I wasn’t trying to shoot into it. (Oddly enough, several of the “official” photographers were set up across from me where they were looking directly into the setting sun. That seemed like an odd choice. With four curves on the course, they should have been able to find a spot inside the curve at a better angle to the sun.)

St Paul bike grand pre women's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

St Paul bike grand pre women's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

(You can see what a difference the changing light made.)

The men’s race was a couple of hours after the women’s. By then it was nearly sunset and most of the street was in deep shadow – except for a few patches of super intense light.

St Paul bike grand pre men's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

I thought panning would be ideal in the shady areas. However, I didn’t get anything that worked very well.

St Paul bike grand pre men's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

(That was the best shot I got.)

On the other hand, on the rare occasions when I was able to time my shot for the riders coming into a patch of light, I was able to get pretty decent results, even if they weren’t very long pans.

St Paul bike grand pre men's race - www.playingwithphotography.com


I changed locations between the women’s and men’s races. I did that both because I wanted to try panning from a different angle and because the spot where I started shooting was completely engulfed in shadows by the time the men’s race started.

For the women’s race I set up where I had the light at a nice angle behind me along the outside of a turn in the course.

I thought this would be a great location, but it had a few drawbacks. . .

I had a great view of the women coming at me. However, it was a crappy location for practicing my panning technique. To pan successfully you have to follow the subject with a locked focus – something you can’t do when the subject is coming straight at you at 15 or 20 miles per hour!

I thought I could pan as they came past me along the corner, but it was hard to identify and follow a subject early enough to get a nice smooth pan. (Usually I ended up with their backs as they finished the curve.)

Even when I did get a decent shot, there was a lot of distracting stuff (like those photographers) directly across from me. That wrecked a few shots.

I wanted to shoot pans that followed a pack of riders as they flew past me. However, getting the focus correct, let alone the speed of the pan, proved to be more than I could do.

St Paul bike grand prix women's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

(You can see I somehow got the focus and the pan correct for one rider. Unfortunately she wasn’t the one I was aiming for!)

However, if I focused on the riders at the end of the pack (who weren’t crowded together), I could generally lock in and keep my focus on the subject I picked. Then it was just a matter of holding the camera steady to get a smooth pan.

St Paul bike grand prix women's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

I was also trying to shoot low, but without actually sitting on the ground. Since I don’t squat very well for long periods, that led to some shaky shots. However, it was a much better angle to shoot from. And, when it worked, it worked really well . . . it just didn’t work all most of the time.

St Paul bike grand prix women's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

(The angle’s great, but the camera shake is a problem.)

You’ll also notice on the pictures above that no one’s feet are moving. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the bikers would be coasting as they came into the corner. Without movement in their legs, my pans have a lot less impact than they could have.

I moved to a straightaway section of the course for the men’s race, which should have made panning easier. However, as noted above, the spotty light introduced different challenges.

Stopping action

While panning has always seemed fiendishly tricky, stop action photography seems pretty basic – set your shutter speed high and hit the shutter just as the action reaches its peak.

Of course, that last part can be pretty difficult.

And if the “action” is an athlete’s facial expression, well, that’s a real focusing challenge in high-speed competitions!

Catching the action as it moved toward me

As noted above, for the most part the women’s race had stunningly beautiful, bright light.

Besides giving the bikers a beautiful glow, that lovely light let me shoot with both a long focal length AND fast shutter speed.

Should be a snap, right?

St Paul bike grand prix women's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

Look closely and you’ll see the lead biker is out of focus. Getting – and keeping – the first biker in the pack in focus was really a challenge since the riders were coming straight at me. I tried following them (like a pan) and locking the focus and I tried pre-focusing on a spot and waiting for the riders to come through it. Neither worked very well.

I really wanted pictures of the pack crowded together as they flew past me, but when I got the focus right, I didn’t have a fast enough shutter speed.

St Paul bike grand prix women's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

(This was shot at 1/640th of a second. I needed a shutter speed twice that.)

I didn’t get any good stop action shots of the women. Because I was mostly focused on learning to pan, I never increased the ISO to get the shutter speed I needed.

A different angle

I approached the men’s race a little differently

After changing locations to make panning easier and catch some of the remaining light, I discovered that it was actually a lot darker than I thought. Even those bright patches of light weren’t that bright – except as compared to the shadows around them.

In response, I cranked up my ISO then left it there. Then, with a fairly fast shutter speed for panning (1/320th and faster), I focused in on a rider and followed him into a patch of sunlight before pressing the shutter.

St Paul bike grand prix men's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

With the men coming past me rather than directly at me for a longer time, I had more time to choose a subject and follow him until he moved into the sunlight.

St Paul bike grand prix men's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

St Paul bike grand prix men's race - www.playingwithphotography.com

It was still pretty challenging (and most of the time it didn’t work, but I wouldn’t have been able to get anything had I been shooting from the same angle I had for the women. And, when it worked, it worked pretty well.

A little context

You’ve just seen all of the most successful shots from the race (all of them), along with a few ok ones and a couple of crappy ones.

I have a few other images that are as good as the ok ones here, but none that are better.

In all, I got about a dozen shots I’m pleased with, although only half of those are good enough to consider submitting for competition. Another 20 are ok for an amateur out shooting for fun.

Of course, those 30 or 40 images represent only a fraction of what I actually shot during the race.

Over the course of three hours I shot almost 1000 frames. Yes, 1000. (A few of those were bursts, so multiples of the same biker or group of bikers, so they probably shouldn’t all count, but there weren’t that many of those either.)

Most of those 1000 photos weren’t very good.

My initial cull reduced that number to 375. (Yeah, over half the photos were so bad I just deleted them as I reviewed them.)

I still have about 300 images on my computer, but mostly because I don’t want to take the time to go through them again just to delete another couple hundred!

But the wonderful thing about digital is that it doesn’t cost anything to go out and shoot 1000 frames over the course of an evening in order to experiment or learn a new skill. It’s a great way to learn, but something I couldn’t afford to back when I was shooting film.


However, I am hoping I learned enough doing this to have a lot higher percentage of good photos the next time I shoot a sporting event!